Falling Into Summer

After last year’s trade-show turf battle in Southern California for back-to-school expos, both Surf Expo and ASR each held successful (and politically peaceful) fall trade shows this winter in their respective “territories”: Surf Expo in Virginia Beach, ASR in Huntington Beach. Both groups reported successful shows and increases in attendance.

It’s doubtful this surprised many retailers. Fall has always been a critical time for them, and this year will be no exception. Dave Hollander, owner of Becker Surfboards, says fall is one of his busiest — and most consistent — times of the year.

“I can tell you on a very large volume day what my sales will be within about 200 to 300 bucks,” he says. “It’s just amazing how similar it is year to year.” Hollander uses his fall sales as a barometer for projecting trends in styles and brands for the rest of the year.

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Tom Brown, president of Seventeenth Street, which has shops along the East Coast, agrees. “We have three strong seasons: back-to-school, Christmas, and summer,” he says. “If you’re in the young men’s and juniors’ business, you’re always going to have a big back-to-school and holiday business.”

Still, fall is not an easy business, and consistent or not, a back-to-school remains one of the most critical times of the year — for retailers and manufacturers.

A Quik Change
This January, while the majority of surf brands were hawking their summer lines at Surf Expo, Quiksilver was showing vendors its fall line for 2003 — it chose to forego a summer line. (Instead, Quiksilver offered an extended spring line.)

“The theory is we’re trying to make life simpler for them {retailers} and get people in the stores a little bit more because they have fewer shows,” says Tom Holbrook, Quiksilver VP of sales.

Holbrook says the feedback from retailers was surprisingly positive: “They’re coming to order in January knowing what they sold for fall and holiday, and whether they’re thinking about summer or fall it didn’t matter. As a matter of fact, they noted it was fresher in their minds, and that was something we didn’t anticipate.”

But it didn’t mean Quik enjoyed a surge in commitments from accounts. In fact, some retailers say they were hesitant to increase their Quiksilver prebooks — they hadn’t seen lines from anybody else.

“Because Quiksilver is our largest vendor, it was easy to be able to book summer as part of the spring line, and we really had no problem with that,” says Brown. “But we’re so intense on closing up our summer and spending all our time working with the buyers, to have someone come in and say, ?It’s back-to-school time,’ we probably didn’t give it the treatment that it should have gotten.”

Brown says Seventeenth Street set aside the same amount of money for Quiksilver this year as it did in 2002. “It becomes mechanical to the point where if you sold 2,000 jeans from Quiksilver, ?Just book 2,000 and let’s move on,'” he says. “We really don’t look at Quiksilver’s, Billabong’s, Rip Curl’s, and O’Neill’s denim and then say, ?You know, Quiksilver really deserves a twenty-percent increase, because they have the best denim.'”

Holbrook concedes this is one of the few disadvantages of being the first brand out the gate, and Quiksilver probably didn’t get an initial increase in orders. “In a couple cases, we’re going to have to go back and massage a few orders where the guys wanted to wait and see six other people before they added the extra ten or fifteen percent,” Holbrook says.

Some manufacturers note having fewer line breaks could also mean missed opportunities for summer sales. Hurley Director Of Sales Dean Quinn says one reason Hurley hasn’t gone to a three-season cycle for its men’s business is that retailers view Hurley as a cutting-edge line. Showing a line in September that ships through May prevents the brand from offering the most current product, he argues. “Retailers look at us being the guys who set trends,” says Quinn. “If we show them a line in September that ships all the way through May, they don’t feel we’re giving them the freshness that we usually give.”

But the advantages of showing fall early outweigh the drawbacks, Holbrook notes. He says the earlier deadlines (early March) allow for more lead time, so Quiksilver can react to trends and order more accurately. “A year ago we were turning our orders in, trying to figure out what we were going to build April 1 for a 5/25 delivery,” says Holbrook. “There’s no way to react that quickly in this market. The most important thing operationally is you get more lead time to determine a more efficient buy or match against production.”

Quiksilver’s improved efficiency should ultimately benefit Quik’s retailers. With a more accurate buy, Quiksilver should be able to make complete and on-time deliveries — something more critical now than ever before. “Retailers are planning their inventories really tight. If somebody doesn’t deliver on time, they can miss their plans,” says Holbrook. “People want to prebook with the people they can count on. They’d rather have too much early than not get it, or not get it on time — at least from their top six suppliers.”

Quiksilver certainly isn’t the only company to operate on a three-season cycle. Podium Distribution’s Matix line of softgoods runs on the same schedule as its cousin DVS, Clae, and Lakai footwear brands: three seasons. (Most skate-shoe companies have three line breaks a year.) During September’s ASR, Matix typically shows a summer/fall combo line that has deliveries beginning in May and ending in September.

“Our fall line goes out a bit earlier than maybe a Volcom or Billabong,” says Podium VP Brian Dunlap. “It works to our advantage because we’re already finished showing fall and have got some of our prebooks in, and I think some of the other surf brands are just now {in late February} getting guys on the road.”

Quik’s move to an earlier fall has encouraged other companies to follow suit. Volcom, Hurley, and O’Neill, among others, broke their fall lines earlier. Volcom Sales Manager Tom Ruiz says the brand got its samples ready sooner than usual, and Quinn says Hurley released its fall line at ASR Long Beach — about six weeks earlier than in the past. O’Neill broke its back-to-school line at MAGIC in mid February.

“A couple years ago, we weren’t late to the party, but we definitely weren’t the first ones out there,” says O’Neill Sportswear President Kelly Gibson. “There’s been a conscientious effort internally to get our lines out earlier every season. We’re probably a month earlier this year.”

What do retailers think of the earlier line breaks and booking dates? Some see it as disadvantage — they’re still focused on summer — but for the most part, they support it. “The earlier we help our vendors forecast, the better in the long run it is for us,” says one Southern California retailer. “And the vendors have to keep in mind that because we’re helping them up front up they need to be a little more flexible in the end.”

Price Buster
Another key issue on the front burner for back-to-school is price. Consumers have thinner wallets these days and want to get the most for their money. Retailers say some branded goods are too expensive for many customers. They’re losing customers to stores like Hollister, Old Navy, and Target, which have come in with surf-look product at lower prices.

“The prices have gotten so high that people can’t afford all the branded items for an outfit, so they brand key pieces and then they surround those pieces with the lesser-priced goods from Target or wherever,” says Becker’s Hollander. “They’ve got a pair of Volcom shorts, but that doesn’t mean they have the high-priced shoes.”

Brown sees a similar problem at his shops on the East Coast, particularly in the boys’ department where parents — not kids — are the primary buyers. “Our problem is in our boys,” he says. “That kid has no say in what he wants to wear. He loves cool surfwear, but his mom’s got the decision and she’s going to say, ‘Why would I buy a pair of $44.95 Billabongs when we can go over to JCPenney and get two Arizona Jean Companies for $19.99?'”

Brown says price becomes less of an issue once that kid becomes brand-conscious and succombs to peer pressure (and starts spending his own money). But up to that point, the malls win at back-to-school. “Our brands don’t hit the pricepoints the mother demands,” he says.

Manufacturers argue they don’t worry about losing that customer who shops on price — they’re not going to play the price game. “If it’s such an issue like, ‘Oh, I can get a twenty-dollar short,’ then they’re going to get a twenty-dollar short from Target,” Dunlap says. “Those things are always going to be there, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. We’ve just got to keep on our niche market, keep on our own pace.”

Some retailers don’t want manufacturers to hit the low pricepoints mall stores do, anyway. Doing so would compromise brand image, they say. “I want quality before price,” says one retailer. “I wouldn’t want manufacturers to do a 30-dollar denim. It would lower the face value of the label and compromise the image of the shop.”

Manufacturers are unlikely to reduce their prices, but they are sharpening their pencils and building more value into their products. Rip Curl Sales Manager Mike Martin, who joined the company last summer after his tenure at Gotcha, says Rip Curl is addressing the price issue by taking a unique approach. “We ask, ‘What are we going to wholesale this thing for, what is someone going to buy this for, and would you buy it?’ and then work back,” he says. “Everybody’s getting smarter, so we all have to really step up. There’s no more blind acceptance.”

Meanwhile, retailers aren’t waiting for manufacturers to slash their wholesale prices — they know that probably won’t ever happen. Some retailers are beefing up their private labels; others are holding sales or buying more off-price goods. “I like to buy off-price and then price accordingly off of that,” says Hollander. “You need a 28-dollar short to complement your 52-dollar shorts. I try to address some key pricepoints so the products are affordable to more people.”

Fall Light
As kids head back to school earlier, retailers and manufacturers have altered their product mixes. They’re stocking more lightweight summertime goods and decreasing their assortment of traditional heavier fall goods such as pants, jackets, and sweaters.

“Back-to-school used to be primarily a lot of denim and pants,” says Quinn. “That’s not the case anymore because you’ve got a lot of people going back to school in boardshorts and walkshorts because it’s hot. You have to adjust your product mix accordingly. Some parts of the country won’t even want to touch pants for back-to-school before 7/25.”

That’s what Brown is seeing. In fact, he reports he sells walkshorts and all the way through mid October, which is a lot later than usual. “For back-to-school you felt you had to build up your fleece walls and set up your long-sleeve wovens and T-shirts early — they had to be there for October, November,” says Brown. “Now we’re touching on those classifications much lighter.”

Brown also notes that as a result of kids starting class before Labor Day, more customers are adding walkshorts and short-sleeve wovens to their back-to-school wardrobes. That, he says, is an advantage for surf shops because by then most department stores will have already moved into heavyweight fall goods.

“The department stores flush that stuff early June and they set up their denim walls, outerwear, and fleece,” he says. “We find our customers shopping at regular price back-to-school in the walkshort and T-shirt category, while we still have a lot of markdown walkshortary buyers. “Our problem is in our boys,” he says. “That kid has no say in what he wants to wear. He loves cool surfwear, but his mom’s got the decision and she’s going to say, ‘Why would I buy a pair of $44.95 Billabongs when we can go over to JCPenney and get two Arizona Jean Companies for $19.99?'”

Brown says price becomes less of an issue once that kid becomes brand-conscious and succombs to peer pressure (and starts spending his own money). But up to that point, the malls win at back-to-school. “Our brands don’t hit the pricepoints the mother demands,” he says.

Manufacturers argue they don’t worry about losing that customer who shops on price — they’re not going to play the price game. “If it’s such an issue like, ‘Oh, I can get a twenty-dollar short,’ then they’re going to get a twenty-dollar short from Target,” Dunlap says. “Those things are always going to be there, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. We’ve just got to keep on our niche market, keep on our own pace.”

Some retailers don’t want manufacturers to hit the low pricepoints mall stores do, anyway. Doing so would compromise brand image, they say. “I want quality before price,” says one retailer. “I wouldn’t want manufacturers to do a 30-dollar denim. It would lower the face value of the label and compromise the image of the shop.”

Manufacturers are unlikely to reduce their prices, but they are sharpening their pencils and building more value into their products. Rip Curl Sales Manager Mike Martin, who joined the company last summer after his tenure at Gotcha, says Rip Curl is addressing the price issue by taking a unique approach. “We ask, ‘What are we going to wholesale this thing for, what is someone going to buy this for, and would you buy it?’ and then work back,” he says. “Everybody’s getting smarter, so we all have to really step up. There’s no more blind acceptance.”

Meanwhile, retailers aren’t waiting for manufacturers to slash their wholesale prices — they know that probably won’t ever happen. Some retailers are beefing up their private labels; others are holding sales or buying more off-price goods. “I like to buy off-price and then price accordingly off of that,” says Hollander. “You need a 28-dollar short to complement your 52-dollar shorts. I try to address some key pricepoints so the products are affordable to more people.”

Fall Light
As kids head back to school earlier, retailers and manufacturers have altered their product mixes. They’re stocking more lightweight summertime goods and decreasing their assortment of traditional heavier fall goods such as pants, jackets, and sweaters.

“Back-to-school used to be primarily a lot of denim and pants,” says Quinn. “That’s not the case anymore because you’ve got a lot of people going back to school in boardshorts and walkshorts because it’s hot. You have to adjust your product mix accordingly. Some parts of the country won’t even want to touch pants for back-to-school before 7/25.”

That’s what Brown is seeing. In fact, he reports he sells walkshorts and all the way through mid October, which is a lot later than usual. “For back-to-school you felt you had to build up your fleece walls and set up your long-sleeve wovens and T-shirts early — they had to be there for October, November,” says Brown. “Now we’re touching on those classifications much lighter.”

Brown also notes that as a result of kids starting class before Labor Day, more customers are adding walkshorts and short-sleeve wovens to their back-to-school wardrobes. That, he says, is an advantage for surf shops because by then most department stores will have already moved into heavyweight fall goods.

“The department stores flush that stuff early June and they set up their denim walls, outerwear, and fleece,” he says. “We find our customers shopping at regular price back-to-school in the walkshort and T-shirt category, while we still have a lot of markdown walkshorts and T-shirts from summer and spring.” In other words, customers want the new goods.

Brown says it’s important for manufacturers to offer strong short-sleeve wovens and fresh walkshorts in their back-to-school lines. Retailers like Hollander on the West Coast say surf customers are following general consumer trends and are sopping up more pants than in the past.

Gibson predicts wovens (especially Western plaids), denim and gas-station style jackets will be popular categories for O’Neill. Additionally he says the military influence is coming on strong (i.e., cargoes), with more attention given to ripstop, cotton, canvas, and twill fabrications.

Back-to-school is a tricky time. There are many factors to consider, especially climate. “Each shop’s order should be based on where they’re at,” says Matix’s Dunlap. “Someone out here {Southern California} can’t do the same kind of buy as someone in the Pacific Northwest, because the climate is totally different.”

Holbrook says uncertain retailers should look to their reps for tips on ordering fall. “If you’re not watching the trends, you might miss it,” says Holbrook. “Do your homework, and make sure you know what’s selling. Listen to the reps. If they’re good, they know what’s retailing and some of the trends.”

horts and T-shirts from summer and spring.” In other words, customers want the new goods.

Brown says it’s important for manufacturers to offer strong short-sleeve wovens and fresh walkshorts in their back-to-school lines. Retailers like Hollander on the West Coast say surf customers are following general consumer trends and are sopping up more pants than in the past.

Gibson predicts wovens (especially Western plaids), denim and gas-station style jackets will be popular categories for O’Neill. Additionally he says the military influence is coming on strong (i.e., cargoes), with more attention given to ripstop, cotton, canvas, and twill fabrications.

Back-to-school is a tricky time. There are many factors to consider, especially climate. “Each shop’s order should be based on where they’re at,” says Matix’s Dunlap. “Someone out here {Southern California} can’t do the same kind of buy as someone in the Pacific Northwest, because the climate is totally different.”

Holbrook says uncertain retailers should look to their reps for tips on ordering fall. “If you’re not watching the trends, you might miss it,” says Holbrook. “Do your homework, and make sure you know what’s selling. Listen to the reps. If they’re good, they know what’s retailing and some of the trends.”